Platform: Xbox 360
Developer: Drinkbox Studios
Review Date: 7/13/14
An undead fiend named Carlos Calaca kidnaps El Presidente's daughter as part of his plan to merge the world of the living with the world of the dead. An unassuming agave farmer named Juan tries to rescue the girl (who happens to be his childhood sweetheart), but is killed by Calaca in the process. Fortunately for him, he meets a mysterious woman named Tostada in the afterlife who gives him a mystical luchador mask. The mask transforms him into a super hero who is capable of traversing both the mortal realm and the land of the dead. With his newfound powers, Juan races after Calaca and his gang in order to save both worlds, and rescue his girlfriend if it's not too late.
The game is utterly delightful in its presentation, and the Dia de los Muertos inspired art direction is stylish and colorful. The mariachi themed soundtrack is lively and adds a nice flavor to the environment. Inevitably, some people are bound to take offense at all of the Mexican stereotypes on display in the game, but they're presented as a celebration of the culture and are in no way demeaning or disrespectful. It has a wonderful sense of humor and references dozens of other video game properties, including Zelda, Mega Man, Mario and Luigi, Street Fighter, Donkey Kong, and a couple of amusing jabs at "Fez." I was also thrilled to see a missing persons poster for Manny Calavera from "Grim Fandango." The writing is also very clever and the characters are fun to interact with. The open world gameplay and design is very similar to "Metroid" in that more areas become accessible as Juan acquires new abilities. The gameplay itself is a combination of platform action and melee combat, and the controls are tight and responsive. The difficulty ramps up at a steady, but manageable pace, and the extensive checkpoint system ensures that you never have to backtrack far when you find yourself stuck in any given situation. It's also nice that as you gain new powers, it's considerably easier to make your way through areas that you've previously explored, so you rarely have to deal with "I'm never doing THAT again" syndrome. While parts of the game are insanely difficult, it's always fair and never resorts to cheap tricks. Enemies and obstacles always follow the same rules and patterns, and success relies solely on observation, practice, and skill.
While defeating Calaca is your primary goal, there are numerous side quests, challenges, and orbs to collect along the way. The orbs are required in order to get the "good" ending, but quite honestly, the "bad" ending is much more poignant. Securing the orbs is incredibly difficult, and only the most skilled and dedicated players should even try. Most of the side quests are simple and straight forward, but the chicken thief is an infuriating variation of a shell game that I never could beat. However, the most aggravating thing for me was not being able to earn Juan's final special power, the Pollo Bomb, which requires mastering a number of challenge rooms in the El Infierno area. These are maddening to even complete, let alone meet the success criteria for silver and gold medals. Unfortunately, several secret areas are only accessible via the Pollo Bomb, and I'll never get to see them because of this.
Overall, "Guacamelee! STCE" is one of the most fun games I've played in recent years, and is a steal at $15 on Xbox LIVE. The Super Turbo Championship Edition offers all of the DLC and costumes from the original PlayStation 3 release, plus 2-player co-op play, two new areas, and an extra mini-boss. Even if you don't get all the way through it, it's a fun journey to make and Juan's world is full of wonder and eye-catching splendor.